Week 5. Lengua de señas mexicana

One of the most striking things I first noticed when reading about Mexican Sign Language (lengua de señas mexicana, or LSM) is the lack of information available about LSM as compared to American Sign Language. Google Scholar produces 3,200,000 results for the search “American Sign Language” and only 396,000 for “Mexican Sign Language.” Of course, those are English-language articles and ASL, although unrelated to English, is used in an English-speaking culture while LSM, unrelated to Spanish, is used in a Spanish-speaking culture. But the result is not much more encouraging if you use the Spanish name for both languages. “Lengua de señas mexicana” gets 17,100 hits and “lengua de señas Americana” gets 20,600. There are more speakers of ASL than LSM, but hundreds of thousands more, not millions more. It is always disappointing to see the grand field of linguistics tilt away from equality (and, surely, this is not the most egregious instance of inequality in linguistics).

All right! Onto LSM. According to Ethnologue there are about 130,000 users of LSM, concentrated mostly in urban areas, with the majority in Mexico City, San Luis Potosí and Guadalajara. LSM is part of the large French Sign Language (LSF) family, which also includes ASL, but is not mutually intelligible with ASL or LSF. Although many LSM users are bilingual in LSM and Spanish, LSM is not Spanish for the hands. Even though many Deaf Mexicans refer to LSM as “seña español,” it has entirely different verb inflections, syntax, and overall structure than Spanish.

Whereas Spanish has, it may seem to an English speaker learning Spanish, an overabundance of “to be,” LSM rarely uses the copula verb. Spanish also is very concerned with agreement between everything: articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs. LSM on the other hand (ha!) does not normally inflect verbs for tense or mood.

In 2005 LSM was officially declared a national language of Mexico. Before then, Deaf students were taught using the oral method, meaning that they were expected to learn in Spanish, by reading lips, learning to read and write Spanish, and, sometimes, learning to speak Spanish as well. While there are now more schools that use LSM, Deaf Mexicans are often marginalized and have fewer social, job, and education opportunities than hearing Mexicans.

Wikipedia Mexican Sign Language


The identitiy of Mexican sign as a language

First written grammatical description of LSM Mexican Sign Language Grammar



Week 4. God, Ernõ and the Magic Cube

Between 1972 and 1976, four patents around the world were filed for mechanical puzzles that featured cubes with 2x2x2 or 3x3x3 dimensions. These puzzles were assembled in a variety of ways, including some with simple magnets and some with complex concealed pivot mechanisms, but they were all a variation on the interlocking puzzle that dates to the 3rd century BC. The most famous of these, the Rubik’s Cube — named after patent-filer number 3, Ernõ Rubik — is the best selling toy of all time, in part for its ingenuity, in part for its simplicity, and in part because it can appease weekend dabblers and competitive enthusiasts alike.

The genius of the cube is its apparent plainness — rotate the various layers to align the multicolored cubes with their like-colored mates — and its practical complexity. Not only is it incredibly hard (if not impossible for those like me) to solve without guidance, but there are in fact 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 ways to scramble the cube — which isn’t quite up there with the possible positions on a chess board (~10^50), but it’s nonetheless 43 quintillion, a word we don’t often hear. Which is to say that there are trillions upon trillions of ways the cube might look when you begin to solve it.

The funny thing about math, though, is that even the most absurdly impossible feat is merely a challenge for the right human brain.

Not long after Ernõ Rubik’s “Magic Cube” found its way from behind the Iron Curtain (Rubik is Hungarian and the cube’s first name was “Buvos Kocka”) via Tom Kremer and the Ideal Toy Company in 1980, people began figuring out general solutions. These early solutions often required less than 100 moves and in 1982 David Singmaster and Alexander Frey hypothesized that every possible permutation could be solved by a number of moves in the “low twenties.” In 2007, a pair of computer scientists refined that number to a hard and fast 26. In 2008, Tomas Rokicki lowered it to 22. And in 2010, Rokicki and a few others working with Google lowered it for the last time to a nice and round 20 moves. This number — 20 — is the God’s Number for the Rubik’s Cube.

God’s Number, is hard to achieve for most dabblers, but for the competitive solvers, it’s not far from the norm. The world record for fewest moves to solve, 19, is shared by three people (contestants are given an hour to study the cube and then write down their solutions). The record for the average number solves in a competition is 24.00.

The list of astounding Rubik’s related records goes on — the fastest blindfold solve is 17.87 seconds, the most cubes solved while blindfolded is 41 out of 41, fastest solve is 4.59 seconds — but there’s something neat in our ability to come so close to God — or at least to a theoretical perception of God. God’s Number comes from the idea that God, if given a cube, could always solve it in 20 moves. That we can come so close — 19 moves on three separate occasions — but not quite achieve the perfection at the heart of the number (20 moves, each and every time) says something marvelous about our capacity: that we can identify perfection and nip at its heels. And it says something about both what we can build — the cube; the computer that solved it; the mere possibility, for it would not exist without us and our habitual tinkering — and what we can do with these contrived constraints and ingenious inventions. Buried even deeper is an appraisal of our own self-worth, that God would busy herself with a toy a tinkerer built to better understand three-dimensional mathematics.

All of that, of course, is only true if you’re willing to take the arbitrary moniker a mathematician bestowed to a pretty number seriously. If you don’t, the cube is just the cube: a test of acumen, problem solving and patience.


Week 4. GMOs: Biting off more than I can chew

Three-letter acronyms tend to be very weighty. What dark and sinister meanings lurk behind FBI, CIA, NSA, USA? While the term GMO doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of questionable policies, it is a very contentious little bundle of letters. People often feel strongly about genetically modified organisms, whether they are for or against them. I haven’t ever quite understood what it means, though, for a product (normally I think of produce) to be genetically modified or why products are modified.

There are sundry uses for genetically modified organisms. These include biological and medical research, experimental medicine, and agriculture. Humans have modified plants and animals for centuries and centuries through the process of selective breeding. The first genetically modified organism, however, wasn’t until 1973 when scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed bacteria that were resistant to an antibiotic by using a gene from a different bacterium resistant to the same antibiotic. Breakthroughs in the field continued from then on. In 1974 Rudolf Jaenisch inserted a DNA virus into an early-stage mouse embryo and the inserted gene was later found in every cell in the mouse. In 1983, a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics was engineered and in 1990 genetically engineered cotton was successfully field-tested. In 1995, Monsanto (dun dun dun) introduced a type of soybean known as “Round-Up-Ready,” which was herbicide immune. Five years later, scientists found that nutrients and vitamins could be introduced to enrich foods.

In the United States more than sixty varieties of genetically modified crops that are approved for food and feed supplies, including: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (both field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets, with apples being the most recent addition. Worldwide more than 18 million farmers use GM seeds. A GM plant’s genetic material is altered for a variety of reasons. Many crops are modified to be tolerant to herbicides and droughts and to be insect resistant as well as to be fortified with certain vitamins. For these reasons (and others) people believe that GM crops should be permissible and easily obtainable.

There are concerns that produce that is modified to be immune to diseases contain antibiotic markers that, when consumed by humans, can make antibiotic medicine less effective. Other concerns about GM foods are unknown issues related chemicals, allergies, and the formation of super weeds. There is also the problem of ownership and patents, which can restrict research rights, lead to a consolidation of the seed industry, and, depending on the kind of seed, force farmers to buy new seed every year rather than saving seed from previous years.

Golden rice is a clear example of a GM crop enmeshed in controversy. Golden rice differs “from its parental strain by the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes”—meaning that it is fortified with vitamin A to be grown in areas with shortages of that vitamin. It is clear that vitamin A deficiency is a real problem: it is estimated that 670,000 children under the age of five die each year due to the deficiency. And a 2012 study showed that the rice provided 68 children in China with more vitamin A than spinach and was as effective as vitamin A capsules.

However, anti-GMO activists worry that focusing on a narrow problem (like vitamin A) will lead to a loss of biodiversity in already impoverished areas and will hurt perhaps already struggling agriculture. In 2008, WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca said, “Giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem.” The rice, however, has great amounts of backing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in developing Golden Rice and in June 2016, 107 Nobel laureates “signed a letter urging Greenpeace to abandon their campaigns against GMOs and against golden rice in particular.”

(Further research: There’s just so much more to know. I would like to know how exactly the genetic modifications occur and the difference between genetically engineered and genetically modified, etc.)


Wikipedia: GMOs

Golden Rice

Gates’ Foundation Golden Rice

GMO Answers

Tough Lessons From Golden Rice

History of GMOs

Organic Consumers

Washington Post: Are patents the problem?